March 29, 2011By Sarah Emily MianoArchive
assaporare, italian restaurant, paris

The best Italian restaurant in Paris?

Pros: Impeccable service, exquisite food, chic but charming atmosphere

Cons: Exorbitantly priced wine, no fixed-price menu in the evening

For several years now, I’ve been on a quest to find the best Italian restaurant in Paris and, while there have been a few contenders, I’ve hesitated to say definitively, “This is The One.” That is, until last Friday, when I discovered Assaporare in a funky up-and-coming neighborhood in the 12th arrondissement and, lucky for me, on a quiet side street not far from my own. This little gem, with its Neapolitan flair, serves up traditional favorites and authentic flavors prepared with gastronomic subtlety and a contemporary twist.

The owner, a mustachioed Neapolitan, Guiseppe Lo Casale, is an epi-curious architect who has smartly orchestrated the decor. The airy, luminous interior has been stripped to its bare bones: exposed beams and brick, glass doors, flooring of smooth concrete (roughly whitewashed) and stone tiles (a terrazzo of speckled grey and yellow). Streamlined Scandinavian-style tables and chairs – pale wood and white lacquer – accentuate the industrial-clean but still homey space. At center stage sits a handsome block of slate, counter-cum-altar, with bottles of oil and vinegar, jars of olives and other marinated miscellany, surrounded by a few half-mooned stools for impromptu diners. The only sentimentality in sight is slight: vibrant paintings, suspended by wire, of solitary figures made lonesome but larger-than-life in the presence of a seagull, boat, pillar or lighthouse.

Before the food arrived, we had no misgivings from the moment another Giuseppe – the chipper, vigilant host of the dining room – entered the scene. Once my friend and I were seated, he perched on a stool next to us and gave us a play-by-play of the menu and wine list. A man enamored of his work, he charmed us with discreet canzone while going about his tasks. Then, just one misgiving: the cheapest bottle of wine on offer, Schola Sarmenti Roccamora, from Apulia, was a whopping €35, though its smooth robustness nudged aside the objection, at least for the evening.

Bianca, the other key player (apparently also an actress) showed no funny business in her cooking: fresh, quality produce and prime ingredients. Unsurprising that assaporare means “to savor”: right from the start – an amuse bouche of bruschetta with black olive tapenade, ricotta cheese and delicate dribbles of extraordinary extra-virgin olive oil – I was smitten. A vegetarian antipasti plate, for starters, was a beautifully colored masterstroke of agrodolce (sweet-sour): smoky aubergine à la balsamic; sweetish red and green peppers; and cubed, caramelized zucchini with grated citron. Forget counting carbs: the bread, toasted or not, was astounding and addictive.

Okay, there’s no set menu on a Friday evening, and the four main courses ranged from €17 to €20. The incontri di mare included a soft slab of salmon stuffed with spinach, with two cold side dishes of marinated octopus and squid on a nest of arugula; the incontri in campagna, a small, round zucchini stuffed with crab meat, was complemented by marinara sauce and Parmesan slivers, alongside wedges of baby artichoke stewed in garlic, onion and herbs to a paradoxical state: it was melt-in-the mouth tender yet crunchy.

We thought this could not be surpassed, but the dessert blew us away. It wasn’t homemade but expedited direct from the renowned Italian pastry chef Salvatore de Riso, whose catalogue has pride of place on the counter. Our selection: melanzana al cioccolato, potent, rich, dark chocolate layered with delicate slices of three-day-marinated aubergine, topped with hazelnuts, orange rind and a maraschino cherry. Now I know what rosy-cheeked cherubs eat in heaven.

If only we hadn’t been so full, and under a spell, we’d have taken advantage of the small épicerie display of Italian specialties: pesto, tapenade, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, funghi, Oro di Gragnano pasta. So, as the months heat up, you can whisk yourself off to Capri, Amalfi or the Italian Riviera, and soak in Mediterranean waters or you can avoid the crowds in high summer, stay closer to home and give your palate the holiday of a lifetime.

Hmm, “The One”?

Sarah Emily Miano

Assaporare: 7, rue St. Nicolas, 75012 Paris. Métro: Ledru-Rollin. Tel.: 01 44 67 75 77. Open: Tuesday and Wednesday, 10am-5pm; Thursday and Friday, 10am-11pm. Fixed-price lunch menu: €14.50. A la carte: €25-35.

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